Why Our Identities In Networks Are So Fragile

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Dave Pollard:

"What makes informal networks so fragile is that our identities are constantly changing. If I move from a job as Chief Knowledge Officer to one as Facilitator, it's likely to affect which networks I select to belong to. If I give up on the political process, I'm likely to abandon networks whose members still believe in it. Once the election is over, by campaign networks are likely to dissolve. Shared problems eventually lose interest or urgency, or are given up as insoluble, or get solved. Progress may become impossible to measure or impossible to achieve. Rewards may lose their lustre. Or despite membership constraints, the cohesion of the network may just dissipate to the point there is no focus or purpose left.

While informal networks are fragile, formal networks are, usually, ineffective. There is something in human nature that makes us object to being told who we must network with -- it's like being forced into an arranged marriage. Imposed formal networks depend on hierarchy and power, and on sanctions for refusing to work within the prescribed network. Given our affinity for sharing peer-to-peer, this means communication in formal networks is usually forced and dysfunctional -- instructions go down and are (often) ignored, while data is extracted (often) begrudgingly and reported upward. We share knowledge only when and to the extent that we have to.

The most powerful phenomenon in formal networks is workarounds. These are the ways we find to do things effectively despite the formal networks pressuring us to do things (usually) ineffectively. It's not that those high in the hierarchy want us to be ineffective. They just don't know any better. They have never done our jobs so they don't know the best way to do them. And because messengers are shot, they are not told what isn't working or why, so their decisions are inherently flawed by lack of essential information.

Workarounds are what make the world work as well as it does, despite the dysfunctions of hierarchy and size. Courageous organizations (those that are small enough to be able to do it, anyway) recognize this by not establishing any formal networks, by having no hierarchy. They have no need for workarounds, just trust in people's ability to figure out how to do their best given the constraints they have to live with. This doesn't just apply to the workplace. Family members learn that "it's better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission" from a domineering parent whose advice makes no sense. Likewise team members with a bad coach. Wherever there are formal networks, there will be workarounds to make them work better than they otherwise would.

All of this explanation of social network dynamics presumes that you subscribe (as I do) to what Lakoff calls the liberal-progressive worldview. Those who have a conservative worldview tend to prefer formality and hierarchy and organized order, and they would have written this article from a completely different point of view.

While they are welcome to do so, the fact is that there are, in many networks, formal and informal, conservatives. These people prefer formal networks to 'messy' informal ones. They like to be told what to do and how to do it by someone with the authority to do so, and they trust authority more than they trust the ability of their peers to make decisions. They loathe workarounds.

What does their presence do to the dynamics of a social network?

First, they will be reluctant participants in informal networks, hesitant to trust them. This will inevitably make informal networks less effective, or, more likely, because these conservatives will self-exclude from such networks, making them poorer for the lack of their knowledge, ideas and experience. Secondly, they will attempt, with the best of intentions, to try to formalize informal networks (to add 'discipline' to them), to denigrate them when they run counter to the operation of formal networks, and to disable or at least formalize workarounds.

Third, their obedient success in the organization may make them pariahs among the by-passed informal networkers, and may well drive the informal networkers out of the organization entirely.

So what you end up with in many larger organizations are two modi operandi going on simultaneously and at cross-purposes: One group improvisationally and creatively finding the best way to do things by networking informally peer-to-peer, and working around imposed constraints, and the other trying desperately to make things work as they are 'supposed' to, according to the manual, the boss' edicts, and the organization chart, trying to impose 'best practices' and block workarounds.

No wonder so many large organizations are such unhappy places, since the dissonance between these two ways of working must be infuriating to both groups. In fact, it is even more complex than that, because most of us sometimes see the value of doing things differently from our normal modus operandi: Liberal-progressives see the need for organizational rigour in areas where there is considerable risk, while conservatives see no harm in informal networks for some creative tasks or as an outlet for frustration with the organization's rules.

And as liberal-progressives move up in the organization, they generally become more inclined to see the value in formal networks that can exercise their new power and authority (and by embracing them, they often find they move up even faster). Meanwhile, conservatives who've been around awhile start to learn what works in reality and what only works in theory, and may tend to become more accommodating of informal networks, workarounds, and those who beg forgiveness instead of asking permission.

They're like the stern parent who discovers to his astonishment that, when the rebellious kids are given the chance to set their own rules, their self-discipline is far more stringent and effective than imposed discipline ever was.

Every once in awhile I take a look at my networks, formal and informal, and the different identities in which I find affinity with others. They are so complex and so dynamic that they cannot really be mapped. And what's most fascinating is that, if I asked the people in my networks (in their various identities) to map how they saw their networks involving me, I'm sure they would be utterly different from how I would draw them." (formerly at broken link ; copy: [1])